https://www.bonnielowkramen.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/1620238817277.jpg 716 997 Bonnie Low-Kramen /wp-content/uploads/2020/08/bonnie-low-logo.png Bonnie Low-Kramen2021-05-05 10:46:132022-01-12 13:34:25The Heart of the Matter: My Tribute to Olympia Dukakis
By Bonnie Low-Kramen
“Bons, hand me a pen, will ya?” She scribbled some words on a hotel napkin – “The heart of the matter.” It was 8AM in Beverly Hills and the car was picking us up from the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny at 9AM for a women’s association speech at 10AM. I was a little worried that Olympia hadn’t prepared any remarks…yet. Until the napkin that she pulled from the room service tray. She scribbled some more and put the napkin in her purse. Off we went.
And at 11AM, she got a standing ovation. That is one of a thousand stories I have about Olympia Dukakis. In contrast, I can tell you that she prepared for her plays and movies very differently, as a self-proclaimed “thespian nun.” Olympia worked really, really hard and as a result, as her Personal Assistant for 25 years, so did I.
Olympia Dukakis passed away on Saturday, May 1, 2021. We knew it was coming but the reality hit me like a tidal wave. Here is the obituary from the New York Times and here is the one from Variety. I admit I will be processing this for some time, but I have some thoughts I want to share about my dear friend, former employer, mentor, and role model that do not appear in these articles.
We had 25 years working together but I have known Olympia, the one and only Louis Zorich, and the extraordinary Dukakis/Zorich family since 1986, so now it is 35 years. We have been there for one another through life’s ups and downs. This is different. Way different.
Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich were two of the smartest people I’ve ever known. They were voracious readers and lovers of history, politics, mythology, opera and all kinds of music, theatre, and art. Their favorite playwright – Anton Chekhov. Hanging out with them was always a mental workout which I loved. The deep and fierce respect and loyalty they had for one another, the family, and for everyone was inspiring to experience and what a lesson. Oh, but don’t cross them…
Olympia Dukakis taught me so much about being a working mother, about being a leader, and about the way to treat others. My training colleagues and I often quote leadership expert Jim Rohn who said, “You are the sum of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” If this is true – and I believe it is – then it will come as no surprise that Olympia is deep inside me and her words come out of my mouth several times a day.
The truth is that my students and audiences learn from Olympia Dukakis every time I speak and they may just not know it.
“The heart of the matter” became a phrase that she used in most every presentation she gave because that was her gift – getting to the heart of the matter, especially when the heart of the matter was the hardest thing to say and yet was on everyone’s mind. And what a gift she had.
Another hallmark of her presentations was the Ugo Betti poem which spoke volumes about her attitude towards life and her work.
Everyone has, inside himself … what shall I call it? A piece of good news! Everyone is … a very great, very important character. ~Ugo Betti
And sometimes she would end her speeches with the poem by Guillaume Apollinaire.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
They said, “We are afraid.”
Come to the edge,” he said.
He pushed them…and they flew.”
Olympia Dukakis pushed me far beyond what I dreamed would be possible and I flew. For the record, I watched Olympia push countless others and they flew far and wide too. She took great pride in my journey from that shy young woman too frightened to talk. She loved me and mentored me and challenged me. Olympia saw me as her partner and we worked hard together in partnership for 25 years (1986-2011.) I had my seat at the table and Olympia valued my opinions.
In 2004, I gave her the final draft of my book, “Be the Ultimate Assistant.” It was a Friday afternoon. On the front cover, I wrote on a yellow sticky note: “Please read this and feel free to let me know anything about you, any story, I should take out.”
On Sunday morning, Olympia called. She said “Bons, I read the book. You really have something here. Don’t change a word. Oh, and I’ll write the Foreword.” She did write the Foreword and then she and Louis hosted my book re-launch party in New York City with 250 people at the National Arts Club. (The photo above is from this event.)
All my worlds were in that room that night. My partner Robert Sanders and my son Adam Kramen. My mother Ruth Low was in that audience in June, 2008 and she passed away one year later. I will never forget the look of pride on my mom’s face as she sat front and center in her fancy gold dress. Olympia loved my mother and called her “Ruthie.” In fact, she cared about my entire family.
I have never forgotten these turning point moments of support and love and there are enough stories to fill another book. We told some of those stories when Olympia was a guest at two Be the Ultimate Assistant workshops in New York City. Our students are still talking about what they learned from her. Her generosity knew no bounds. She would tell me, “It’s the easiest thing in the world for me to help you.” Right back at you, Oly.
Over these past years, we often talked about the partnership between assistants and leaders. From the beginning, Olympia knew the power of this partnership. I called her the “Queen of the Delegators” and as such, this meant that my job was to do everything that Olympia didn’t need to do. That also meant that sometimes I would make mistakes, and sometimes, they would be big ones. Olympia knew that in order to have the freedom and the time she craved, that she would have to tolerate a few mistakes.
Her famous line to me: “That’s ok, Bons. No one is going to go to theatre jail over that.”
But then there was the time I gave her the wrong speech for a paid gig. Olympia was not happy but there was no yelling. Mainly, she wanted to be sure that I knew how to NOT make that mistake again. She understood that my actions came from a well-intentioned place. And we agreed, that mistakes, especially the big ones like that speech disaster, only got to happen one time. My BTUA students learn about the “one-time rule.”
Some of my favorite memories are from our early morning plane flights when we would talk about our parents, our childhoods, and how we both grew up feeling like outsiders. I loved watching movies and plays with Olympia which ended up being master classes. And…she always correctly picked the Best Picture winner for the Oscars. It was uncanny.
Olympia Dukakis lived authentically and as actress Viola Davis said in her tweet, Olympia made everyone better around her. Viola is so right. For 25 years, I watched this be true and it was a fabulous journey that took us to Alaska, Prague, Sydney, London, and dozens of other places. I’ve met the most amazing and talented people, some very famous but most not.
Olympia taught me to meet people, everyone, where they are. She treated everyone with respect. Everyone. No exceptions. From the hair and makeup and costume and lighting staffs to Lady Diana who she met when she was in London for the British premiere of Steel Magnolias. She also spoke with a directness that surprised many. I learned that from her too.
One last story that is one of Vickie Sokol Evans’ (my business partner) favorites…Early on in our time together, I would order a car to take us to an engagement. When it arrived, I would say with some urgency, “Olympia, we need to go. The car is here.” And she looked at me calmly and said, “Relax Bons. Just because the car is here, doesn’t mean we have to get in it.”
Right. Got it. A reminder about who is really calling the shots here.
Thank you, Olympia Dukakis, for so many things. I will remember what you taught me.
“Don’t waste time on fear, Bons. Fear is boring.” ~Olympia Dukakis
Got it, Oly.
Since Saturday, I have heard from hundreds of Olympia’s friends and fans from all over the world sharing their memories of how Olympia Dukakis changed their lives. Many of them expressed the idea that she couldn’t possibly be gone because she was immortal. I understand. The outpouring of love and support has been heartwarming to me, her kids, Christina Zorich, Peter Zorich, and Stefan Zorich, her brother Apollo Dukakis, her cousin Michael Dukakis, the whole family, and to all who cared for Olympia, including the wonderful Patrick Healy, who worked with Olympia and Louis after I left, and all the many great important characters. I am beyond grateful. Thank you to all who reached out.
I love reading your stories so if you have any that you want to tell me, just reply in the comments or write to me via the email address below. We shall keep Olympia Dukakis alive with her stories and I can tell you that she would LOVE us honoring her legacy in this way. And for those who can’t get enough of learning about this amazing woman, check out the Harry Mavromichalis documentary about her life, fittingly called “Olympia.” I am deeply honored to be included in this film, if only for a few seconds. Check it out.
I am Bonnie Low-Kramen, TEDx speaker, author of “Be the Ultimate Assistant” and trainer of Executive Assistants all over the world. In May, 2019, I was featured in a Forbes online cover story. As part of the research for my second book about the workplace to be published in 2022, I have had over 1,000 conversations with assistants, leaders, HR professionals, recruiters, and business school professors. I have worked in 14 countries and 38 states and would love to work with you towards building your ultimate workplace. Click here to set up a time to speak with me about your training needs which can be delivered virtually or in person.